A strong photograph. A grid. Attention to detail. Going back to the basics after attempting some illustrative approaches. The result above.
I really wanted to bring over some style or influence from my personal work, creating strong black and white illustration of Daniel Hsu performing. I’d found a dynamic photo, shot from above, grand piano, etc. Dropped it into a layout. Dead. Flat. Useless. Maybe if I added a bit more texture. I’d recently read a comic that used a dramatic digitally painted illustration style. Perhaps Mr. Hsu’s headshot rendered in a similar fashion standing behind the dramatic performance illustration. In my mind it was beautiful. In execution. A big heaping helping of Nope. Nope nope nope, not a chance. On my iPad the illustration looked decent, not half bad for my first attempt at such a style. Again, in a layout, oh my, the horror.
A strong photograph. A grid. Attention to detail. The things I do well.
And though my meandering down the path of illustration might seem to have been for naught, it served a good lesson to me. In the end it pushed me back to an appreciation of what I do well. Sometimes it’s easy to look at other styles, the way other designers work, and feel lacking. To feel stale. Pushing oneself to attempt something completely different can help you realize that perhaps there are designers who work in another style that might see my work and think, “Damn, how can I do something super simple. Grids just kill me.” Meanwhile, they’re doing killer kinetic illustrations that I might drool over.
In the end, I like this poster better than a lot of other work I’ve done. It hit a certain point during the design when I said to myself, “Damn. That’s nice. So clean, and elegant.” And I hope, representative of Mr. Hsu’s performance next week. Also, after seeing the poster in the wild a few times, it certainly holds its own on cluttered walls. Far better than my attempts at illustration would have.
Ninety percent of my work, more or less, is done on a computer. But there are those bits that still have to be done by hand, compared and checked in the real world. Two of the projects I’ve been working on have led me away from the computer this week. Here’s a little peek into some of what I do.
We have a very nice print exhibition coming up in March. Through an amusing (to me as a designer) sequence we established the color palette would include Pantone’s color of the year: ultraviolet. I tend to avoid trends, but in this case we needed a color that would complement the aged paper color of the prints and work well with the wall color, which matched Warm Grey 5 rather nicely. Ultimately it will be a bit more of a split compliment, and I needed to confirm that there would be enough contrast for some of the graphics, particularly cut vinyl text. It’s a tricky color, the warm gray wall. Since it will be difficult to come any way close to matching the purple as printed on panels and cut vinyl, I’m hoping there will be enough contrast with white text. The details that one has to sweat out.
On the other hand, these little bits of cut out paper are a nightmare of my creation. Each year the Museum Ball presents a tricky situation. Creating an invitation that can set the tone for one of the prime charity fundraisers of the year, even though it’s often sold out before the invitations land in mailboxes. It can be difficult to put one’s best effort into something that can really feel like a formality if other fundraising efforts are successful. Last year was very formal, but this year the ball chairs wanted to go in a modern / contemporary direction. It’s been fun. And I decided on a reveal using a die cut. And have now made more mockups than I would have liked. Not rotating the design correctly for alignment, or just straight up needing to confirm that everything did in fact line up one last time before sending to the printer.
I like to think I have good spatial relation skills. But this just broke my brain a couple of times. I’m going to blame the fact that it was one of a half-dozen things I’m juggling, so I was a little fried by the time I was working out the die and alignment. Brain fry and all though, the files are off to the printer and their prepress has not called anything out as being improperly aligned. Knock on wood and other such tokens of luck, I’ll see a hard proof next week and perhaps my brain ache will have been worth it for a smooth print and production workflow.
Instagram post of the latest plywood painting I finished. It’s 24 x 24 inches, acrylic on plywood. I snapped the original image as I walked past the entrance to a parking garage in Chicago.
I’m fascinated by the entrances to parking decks and garages for a couple of reasons. One, I find them to be architecturally fascinating spaces. The lines and geometry are often great from a compositional standpoint. Creating black and white art that strips these spaces down to core composition is a means of highlighting what I perceive to be the inherent beauty of these spaces that are often considered a functional blight on city centers.
Secondarily, I find these places to be interesting liminal spaces. They are intended to be navigated in a car, but humans have to move through them, though they are in many ways hostile. It’s this necessary but indeterminate space. I think this is similar to my fascination with airports. These are not the destination, merely some third space one has to navigate to get to where you intend to go. As such, they tend to be overlooked, perhaps why I’ve begun paying attention to them.
Below is the process from original photograph to finished painting.
The images as cropped and adjusted for Instagram. My working method with all of the pieces I’ve made from this series have started as photos I’ve posted to Instagram. It serves as the starting point, test bed, etc. for images that I want to work with.
This has become a predominantly digital process. Quick photo with my iPhone, processing via Instagram, then sketching out the composition in Procreate on my iPad Pro.
Process video of my work in Procreate. This highlights the decisions points and compositional decisions I made while resolving the sketch. The biggest choices were the elimination of the gate arm, and deciding to paint in the ceiling. Though the composition is heavily guided by the typically harsh shadows of these environments, I’m clearly not working to slavishly recreate every aspect of the image. Much of this process is about reduction.
The prepared board. I’ve bought standard 1/2 inch thick, precut, 24 x 24 inch plywood boards. They are then prepped with a coat or two of black gesso, and then a coat of white acrylic. I use a dark undercoat because I want the white in the image to have a sense of depth.
The analog portion of the process really begins. After resolving the composition in Procreate, I print it out, roughly 4 inches square, then use an art projector to transfer it to the board. The board has been completely covered in masking tape.
Back acrylic applied. Unlike my previous work on canvas where I used a brush to fill in the white areas as a contrast to stenciled black acrylic, I’ve been using foam brushes for both the white and black layers with these pieces for a more uniform appearance.
The last touch, adding in the red. This has been a new direction for me, highlighting small pops of color in these pieces. The working title of the series has been “Warning Signs,” as all of these spaces are adorned with markings of some type warning the pedestrian, or driver, of what they are or are not allowed to do. Or in the case of this space, guiding the driver through these curved ramps. All the same, they act as a warning indicator. Bringing these bright spots back into the composition is a way to highlight the quasi hostile but still functional nature of these spaces.
Years in the making is not an overstatement. Rarely have I enjoyed the smell of fresh ink on paper as much.
New work for the Downtown Running Club. Five years strong, I decided it was time to make something more representative of the club’s vibe. The custom type is inspired by downtown sidewalk brickwork and it’s laid on top of a Birmingham manhole cover.
A detailed post documenting this project might eventually happen. Leave it at this for now: designing maps is a tricky wicket. Everyone reads maps differently. People have varied spatial reasoning abilities. There is little consensus on priorities, which is actually a little surprising if you think about it. Needless to say I’m a little on pins and needles waiting to get a week’s worth of feedback from visitors and coworkers. I have a near allergic reaction to “design by committee,” though iterative beta testing isn’t quite the same, it’s a little unnerving.
And, to make it trickier, we’re renaming the floors of the Museum. Instead of “1, 2, and 3,” we’re hoping “Ground, 1, and 2” will make more sense to the visitors. Of course it means some janky testing while we wait for new elevator buttons to come in.
Design process. I’m sure I could find a “hand cut” or “cut paper” font that is close to Akzidenz Grotesk. But, I use Akzidenz Grotesk daily for the Museum’s branded materials and I wanted to keep a crafty, hand-made aesthetic on brand, I printed out the alphabet and hand cut it. It was fun to craft hands-on analog design materials. Granted, I made the alphabet and then laid out the copy in Photoshop rather than cutting out the entire design… but I’m a one person shop, so I gotta make concessions somewhere.
Exceptionally high standards and harsh self-scrutiny. Add a dash of depression and the result is a mild existential career crisis. I’ve struggled for a while wondering what I really want to do with my career. I felt stagnant, perhaps worked myself through logical reduction to think that my work was without merit, feeble in impact, worthless. Becoming aware of the cycle, I feel like I’m slowly working out of it. But sometimes the real push comes from unexpected places. Like an NPR story about the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict.
To paraphrase, the report frames the riot as a life changing moment for the subject. He was a teenager living in South Central, falling into the wrong crowd, etc. To prove his manliness he participated in the riots, stealing a boombox and some CDs. Looking at the floor he noticed a CD with a strange cover, a naked baby swimming after a dollar. Fascinated, he added it to his plunder. The first listen blew his mind. Smells Like Teen Spirit became the soundtrack of the riots, and Nirvana led him on a deep musical journey. He moved, and rather than falling back into the gang crowd, he started wearing flannel, became a punk, but eventually went on to school and is now working in IT. He credits that copy of Nevermind with changing is life, ultimately, making the riots a positive turning point in his life.
While listening to the story, I thought of the way stories of music changing someones life are commonplace. But what about the design of the record cover… the very thing that prompted the kid to steal the CD in the first place. I couldn’t help but wonder how would Robert Fisher, art director, and Kirk Weddle, photographer react to the story. When he art directed that photo shoot, did he ever have any idea that it might prompt a kid to steal it, and ultimately change, perhaps save, his life.
And, surprisingly, my mind actually turned to the positive, thinking of the unknown impact my work might have had in the last 14 years, 11 of them working for the Museum. In a college critique, I experienced the potential for design to change minds when a classmate said my poster for organ donation had made him reconsider it. He had changed his mind, thinking now that he would become and organ donor. It’s been easy to forget that anecdote over the years, or at least let it fade from mind. I create work, and outside my coworkers, rarely hear any feedback, with attendance or engagement with Museum programs as a means of measuring success. And even then, my work is only a part of the equation that brings people to the Museum.
But, doing some back of the napkin math, there have likely been 1.5 million visits to the Museum since I’ve been the graphic designer. I’ve designed materials for dozens of exhibitions, and probably hundreds of programs. The chances that any one of those given visits or programs has deeply affected someone, possibly changing the course of their life, well, there’s probably a decent chance. It’s a humbling thought to consider. It’s also the fulfillment of my decision to work at a Museum.
This is something I need to keep in mind more often. To stop and appreciate a little more often. There are many reasons I hold myself back from appreciating the things I have accomplished, or the impact I have had on the world around me. The internalization of so much self-doubt and criticism. I’ve allowed it to debilitate me for a long time.
New Museum work.
A poster for an upcoming lecture / performance by the Iraqi-born artist Hayv Kahraman. I didn’t feel the need to work too conceptually, as the title of the program set with the artist’s work does most of the heavy lifting. Often when talking to others about my work, they assume as a designer it must be great, or very inspiring, to have so much great imagery to work with. The truth is that it can be a real struggle to work around much of the time. Three dimensional can just be tricky, working in the inherently flat space of print design. Prints and paintings can work better, but there are often restrictions on cropping, or overlaying text. Anything that alters the work. This was not a case where I was frustrated by many of the complications I face. With the scalloped canvas shape, much of the layout worked itself out quite logically along a strong grid. Everything was kept within Museum branding, a lot of Akzidenz Grotesk. And then the icing was the artist quote. Much of her work deals with architecture, particularly as it relates to the separation of men and women in traditional Iraqi culture. I wanted a layout element that referenced the curve of the canvas corners, and draping the quote over the other elements served that purpose well, serving as a lovely arch anchoring all the pieces together. It also gave me a place to pop a bit of red with the artist’s name, mirroring her red signature in the upper left of the canvas.
Another element that was fun to resolve is the sub-branding of the Friend Lecture itself. Since having the Museum rebranding in 2015, I’ve still struggled with a systematic way to handle all of the additional programming the Museum undertakes. Working on a requested “logo” for our Junior Patrons a week or so ago, I resolved a system that can attach to the logo from anchor points on all four corners of the logo. Using the same stroke width, a holding shape for the sub brand projects from a corner of the Museum logo. Everything is locked according to spacing double the stroke width of the logo and holding shape. To contrast with the general Museum brand, the sub brands are set in a condensed version of Akzidenz Grotesk. Each sub brand can be presented with or without the Museum name. The original brand standards included the suggestion of a branding strip that would be used on posters and advertising. A convenient place to lock the logo and vital information. I’ve continued to use, or at least reference, the branding strip in most Museum materials. In this sub-branding scheme, the bar is rethought a little, now also becoming a holding shape with the same stroke width of the logo.
Recent Museum work.
Poster for the first Third Space Chapters program. A conversation between artist Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith, Olympic gold medalist famous for raising his fist in silent protest at the 1968 Olympics. Bridge, created by Kaino, consisted of 200 bronzed pieces cast from Tommie Smith’s arm, suspended in an undulating wave in a large warehouse. The piece was built in sections so it could be distributed across the country. Bridge (Section 1 of 6) was recently acquired by the Museum.